It’s been a hell of a ride for Penn men’s basketball these past few weeks.
If the team handles business this weekend and qualifies for the postseason, its journey could perhaps go down as the most impressive single-season turnaround for any sport in school history — one that players and coaches involved would remember forever.
So how tough would it feel to be just on the outside, looking in at this historic journey from the slimmest distance possible?
There’s one former Quaker who knows the answer.
After serving as a power forward for the team for two years, Mike Auger left both the Red and Blue program and the University as a whole at the conclusion of the 2015-16 school year. Now working as a leasing specialist for Hamilton Court apartments, the 6-foot-7 would-be junior has left his athletic career in the dust.
“The real thing that did me in was just the injuries ... I just reached the point of diminishing return,” Auger said. “I have nothing but positive things to say about the program and the coaching staff; it was more of a personal decision. I needed to take some time to step away and work on myself, and that’s what it came down to.”
As recently as two years ago, no one could’ve seen this coming.
As soon as it stepped on campus, the Class of 2018 was hailed as the group that would put Penn men’s basketball back on the map. Guards Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods, sharpshooting small forward Sam Jones and Auger in the paint burst onto the scene, with all four immediately taking roles in the team’s eight-man rotation.
The 2014-15 team still stands as the only squad in Ivy League men’s basketball history to have four individual players win conference Rookie of the Week honors, and Auger finished the season with solid averages of 5.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 19.1 minutes per game.
“That was unbelievable, man. Those are still my brothers, and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life,” Auger said. “Coming in as a freshman and being able to play with those guys, we thought we had something rolling. ... We really thought that we were going to turn things around, but I’ll still cherish those memories forever.”
But just before that memorable season came to a close, a bombshell was dropped on the program — Penn fired head coach Jerome Allen, a move that would impact Auger permanently.
“That was tough for all of us,” Auger said. “Coach Allen is an incredible person, he’s one of the best kinds of people out there on and off the court. He cared about us like we were family, so it was very emotional when we got the news.”
As coach Steve Donahue’s debut season began, Auger showed glimpses of the potential displayed in his freshman year. Still receiving decent playing time in non-conference play, Auger led the team with a .576 field goal percentage, and he was in the team’s top three in points (15.7) and rebounds (10.8) per 40 minutes.
But once Ivy League play rolled around, it just wasn’t meant to be. Donahue began to favor fellow reserve big men Max Rothschild and Dan Dwyer as rotational players, as Auger suddenly found himself as the odd man out.
The final blow — literally, and figuratively — came in an 81-58 road loss at Yale, when Auger was elbowed in the face, leading to a broken nose and a concussion. He would proceed to play only two more garbage time minutes in the whole season — and as it would turn out, the remainder of his basketball career.
“Happiness is the key to success, and I wasn’t happy, so I wasn’t doing what I needed to do,” Auger said. “It doesn’t come down to anything the coaching staff did; it was more of a personal thing that I just wasn’t taking care of business the way I needed to on and off the court.”
Though Auger did leave Penn for the 2016-17 school year, the former athlete has reinvented himself in his new sales role for HamCo.
“It’s just doing things to pay the bills,” said Auger, who plans to re-enroll at Penn over the summer but doesn’t expect to return to the team. “I’ve done a lot of things since leaving the team that have been good for my resume, so I’m really just kind of shifting my focus from playing basketball to putting myself in a position to succeed in life.”
After all, there was no way he could’ve gone too far. Despite no longer suiting up, he has remained the team’s biggest fan, as his bonds with his former teammates have stayed as thorough as ever.
Thus, while Penn’s winning streak is certainly unforgettable for those involved, Auger is at peace with his life path. Whether he touches the Palestra floor again or not, the family he built in that gym will stay with him forever.
“It’s not bittersweet at all to watch them; I’m just happy for my guys now that they’re winning, and I’m proud of them. I wish them nothing but the best. If I regretted my decision, then it would be bittersweet, but I’m really comfortable with where I’m at,” he said. “I feel really good about the program and really good about those guys — they’re still my brothers, and always will be.”